Researchers at Iowa State University are trying to increase the welfare and health of chickens through virtual reality (VR).

In recent years, VR technology has found its way into every part of life. From video games to job training, VR strives to give users an experience as close to reality as possible. Although to many, this advancement in technology may sound dystopian, researchers across the country are finding ways it can improve our daily lives.

Melha Mellata, associate professor, Department of Food Science and Human Nutrition at Iowa State University, and Graham Redweik, a recent doctoral student in the Interdepartmental Microbiology Graduate Program at Iowa State, are looking at whether VR can be used in another unconventional way, this time for birds.

Iowa State researchers acknowledged that the growing demand for cage-free eggs stems from the goal of providing hens with better welfare, especially in terms of natural behavior. But because cage-free systems can present challenges, such as injuries and bacterial infections, most laying hens are kept in conventional cages. Mellata saw VR technology as a way to simulate a free-range environment in laying hen housing.

“There are many challenges associated with free-range production environments for laying hens, including the potential for additional injury, disease and predation risks,” Mellata said. “However, chickens in free-range environments tend to engage more often in positive, ‘normal’ behaviors that appear to improve their overall health and immunity.”

The study, “Exposure to a virtual environment induces biological and microbiotic changes in laying hens,” published in the peer-reviewed journal frontiers of science, found that exposing chickens to VR scenes of chickens in more natural environments reduced indicators of stress in the chickens’ blood and gut microbiota. “It’s intriguing to think that even simply showing chickens free-range environments can stimulate similar immunological benefits,” Mellate said.

Chickens are very receptive to visual stimuli. Like their T-rex ancestors, chickens have poor depth perception and recognize objects better when they are moving than stationary. According to the study, this means that environmental factors, such as color, light quality, duration and intensity, all influence bird feeding behaviors.

For example, when you watch a video of birds being fed, the birds will imitate these behaviors and approach their food more quickly.

The study found that VR scenes caused biochemical changes associated with increased resistance to E. coli bacteria, which poses health risks to birds and humans who eat contaminated eggs.

The researchers showed video projections of chickens in free-range environments. The scenes showed indoor facilities with access to a fenced outdoor scratching area and an open door unfenced with grass, bushes and flowers. A group of 34 chickens from commercial poultry flocks were exposed to videos over five days on all four walls of their housing. The videos were tested during a period of high risk for stress – 15 weeks after hatching, a stage when commercial chickens are regularly moved to egg facilities.

Visual-only recordings showed different groups of free-range hens performing activities associated with positive bird behaviors based on time of day, such as pecking, perching, dusting, and nesting. The videos were not shown to a control group of the same size and age in the same type of housing.

The researchers analyzed blood, tissue and samples of their gut microbiota. Chickens in the treatment group showed some beneficial changes compared to the control group. The differences included lower stress indicators and increased resistance to the pathogenic poultry bacteria E. coli that can cause sepsis and death in young birds.

“We need more research, but this suggests that virtual reality could be a relatively simple tool to improve the health of poultry in confined environments and improve food safety,” Mellata said. “It could also be a relatively inexpensive way to reduce infections and the need for antibiotics in egg production.”

The team hopes to expand the research to conduct a similar study over a longer period of time, with more chickens and chickens at different stages, to see if the results can be replicated.

“Future research in collaboration with our partners in veterinary medicine is also needed to investigate the neurochemical mechanisms linking visual stimuli to changes in the gut of chickens,” Mellata said.

You can view the full study here.

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